I sat on a red cushion threaded with gold geometric designs in Aisa’s octagonal boudoir. There was a strong, colourless liqueur that she served me in a small, delicate glass. It smelled faintly of aniseed and tasted of almost nothing. I was unable to discern whether that was a property of the drink itself, or some strange side-effect of my new condition. Since I had begun coming here and undergoing these bizarre procedures, I had noticed many changes in my senses. At first, I had simply believed I was becoming used to my new lifestyle, and with the excess of stimulation I experienced, I was becoming naturally dulled to sensation, always seeking greater and greater pleasures. Appetite in proportion to strength, as Aisa had been so quick to point out. Now I was not so certain. The rich colours that had seemed so strange and exotic to me when I had first entered this chamber were now grey and murky, as if the fog outside had penetrated walls and ceiling and now hung over the oriental ephemera of this sanctum. My heart, the part of me that all my knowledge of natural philosophy told me was merely a particularly powerful muscle, a pump that drove my vitae around my body, through vein and artery, had been replaced. To believe the heart held the key to the soul was foolish superstition, and yet now mine possessed a real key, and was a machine of cogs and springs and levers, ticking away hollowly in my chest. It was utterly ghoulish, and I wondered, as I wondered much else, whether I had given up something greater than a mere organ in this bargain.
The heart was the least of my problems though. Aisa sat opposite me, across the table. She sipped at her own drink and watched me. Doctor Callow stood on the other side of the room, thumbs tucked into his waistcoat that stretched across his bulky middle. Neither had said anything for some time. I was both repelled and fascinated by the thing that hung heavily on my left side, now resting on the edge of the low table. I wanted to avert my eyes, to forget it existed, but like a fresh wound, there was some childlike desire to probe it with a mucky finger, to test the limits of discomfort on my own terms. I forced myself to look down at it and could not repress the shudder that passed through me. I wore no shirt, and though it had not been discussed in my hearing, I sensed that the logistics of dressing me had posed a problem to my hosts. My arm – my new arm – was thus exposed, affixed to my pale flesh, bolted through skin, muscle and bone, a crude and unlovely prosthetic. It moved unnaturally, lacking grace of any kind. Each twitch caused a whirring and ticking from the mechanisms within; clockwork of complexity I could not begin to fathom. Of course, I could not have built my own, human, arm myself either. Nature’s craft was just as mysterious as Aisa’s, and yet I was comfortable with the unknowable when it was flesh and blood. This was a truly alien object; something that even separate had been disturbing and weird. Now, it was a horror. Like the plate on my chest with the keyhole, it felt like it was part of my body. It was part of my body, I reminded myself with another shudder. When I began to lift it, I could feel the clockwork moving inside, as if it were my tendons and sinews. I stared at it as I straightened it before me, seeing the gold and bronze components shift, rearranging themselves with their intricate motions, slotting into place as if they truly were alive. The incredible craftsmanship was, in some ways, still a delight, but now it was mixed with such dread that it produced in me only a feeling of profound nausea.
The arm was sculpted with bulging musculature of hammered bronze, quite unlike my real right arm. It was almost comically large, which was understandable as it had once belonged to Theseus, the clockwork giant who had also provided me with the miraculous heart that now ticked in my chest. That fashioned exterior was a mere shell though, and the plates were quite light. Much of the workings were still on show, and my hand was now a skeletal talon with hooked, steel claws at the end. I clenched the fist experimentally. The noise of stretching springs in the wrist was hideous, and I could feel the tension all the way up to my shoulder. Gears and wheels shifted unseen somewhere in the depths, and the ticking ceased. It resumed when I opened my hand again, and turned my arm over so my palm – not a flat surface, but a web of wires and soldered joints – was facing upwards. I had to consciously move this terrible device now grafted to me, like an infant mastering its motor functions for the first time. I was clumsy with it on the occasions when I forgot myself and reached for something using it. In all ways, it felt like a part of my body. But I knew it could not be.
“James?” Aisa continued to watch me curiously. “How does it feel?”
“Monstrous.” I made no show of hiding my feelings, not now. I had calmed down a little since my discovery of this mutilation, but an indignant fury still burned within me. “How could you do this?”
“What was I supposed to do?”
I stared at her in disbelief. “Leave me a cripple. Let nature take its course.”
One of her eyebrows rose gently. “As you did with your heart?”
I had no reply to that, and I looked at the arm again. I laid it on the table. It could remain still for as long as I wished, unlike a real arm which would have twitched and tickled and been compelled to find activities to occupy it whatever the will of its owner. As much a foreign thing as this abomination seemed, I accepted the strange truth that my control of it was more complete than over most of my own, natural bodily functions. “Callow,” I said to the doctor, “how could you allow this?”
He straightened and pulled at the bottom of his waistcoat. “What are you insinuating, James?”
“Nothing, Callow, except that you have a professional obligation not to allow surgery to be performed on a patient against their will…”
“What? Surely it underpins your entire practice!”
“In theory,” he allowed, folding his hands behind his back and beginning to pace around the room, “but when a patient is insensible, when they cannot provide their explicit consent, one needs to take the decision that will be least detrimental to their health. Does a man who lies unconscious after being run down in the street consent to the surgery that saves his life? He cannot say whether he might prefer to leave this mortal coil; he cannot speak his approval in any manner, and yet we physicians have, as you say, an obligation – indeed, a duty – to intervene and preserve life and the quality thereof where possible. That is what being a doctor is, James.”
“She isn’t a doctor,” I said, nodding towards Aisa.
“And I am not a midwife, but I have called for one on any number of occasions when attending women in labour. Others have expertise I lack, but which I in my capacity as physician might use to preserve the wellbeing of those under my care. I referred you to Aisa first of all because I believed she was the only person in London who could give you what you needed. This is nothing more than an extension of that procedure, for which you most certainly did consent.”
I shook my head. “This is not the same, as you know perfectly well.” I lifted the fearful arm again. “I did not ask for this. If given the choice, I would not have done so. I wish it removed.”
“It cannot be removed,” Aisa said.
“Whyever not?” I demanded.
“Because it runs from your heart, like the rest of you. There are connections running through your shoulder directly into it. To remove it, I would have to undo much of my work. The procedure would be extensive, and the toll it would take would be great.”
“I don’t care,” I said, though I was less sure now. The scarring stretched across my chest, and I wondered at how I had survived being ripped open so ignominiously.
“Your body would, James. It is already weak from the last surgery. If I were to cut you again, you would be unlikely to survive. I would not operate on you again for a month – perhaps more.”
“I agree with that prognosis,” Callow interjected.
“I wish it removed,” I repeated, “and I will wait as long as needs be. I do not want this, Aisa. The heart…the heart was one thing. This is quite another. This is…this is unholy. This is wrong.”
“The heart is far more vital an organ than any part of the arm, James,” Callow said, “and the procedure far less complex. Compared to what you have already endured, this is the merest trifle.”
I tilted my head back and looked up at the ceiling. Like everything else it seemed drab and colourless, though I could still tell it was painted a rich vermillion. There seemed no escape from this predicament. No one save Aisa had the skill to remove this hideous machine from me, and she was clearly unwilling. If I went to another doctor for aid, they would only ask questions for which I had no answer. I was caught in a perfect trap of my own making. It seemed, sitting there, that the pieces of some great machine closed in around me, the teeth of cogwheels crunching and scraping, coming to grind me to dust with their inexorable progress.
“I hope you have chambers I might use,” I finally said. I had seen no other rooms save the long corridor, this boudoir and the workshop, and no further doors, but Aisa must live somewhere, in rooms above perhaps, accessed by some hidden means.
“Use for what?” she asked.
“I can hardly venture outside! What will people say?”
“A jacket will conceal it,” Callow said.
I lifted the great clawed hand. “A jacket?!”
“And gloves,” he added, “no one need know.”
I despaired. “You expect me to wear gloves and jacket at all times to hide the fact that my left arm has been replaced by an abominable device? How will I manage such a subterfuge for an entire month?”
“You live alone,” Callow said, “who would normally have sight of your arm? I think you will be surprised how easy it will be, James. You have kept your heart a secret, no? I can hear the ticking from here, but a lie about a pocket watch is sufficient, I’m certain.”
“I…I’m to be married…” I tried to calculate how long remained until my nuptials, but could come up with no figure. I did not know the date at all. The last few months had been so confusing, and this was just the latest manifestation of the anarchy into which my life had descended of late. “What…what will Marjory say when I bring her to our marital bed and disrobe to reveal this?”
“James,” Aisa said in a chiding tone, “answer me truly: do you really still intend to marry that girl?”
I peered at her in consternation. “What do you know of it?”
“I have held your living heart in my hands, James. You and I have no secrets. That girl is no longer worthy of you: you know this. You have moved beyond her, perhaps beyond anyone in London, excepting myself. The heart of a hero beats within your chest now.”
“Ticks,” I corrected her. I stood up, the heavy clockwork arm hanging limply by my side unnervingly. “And Marjory is my betrothed. I love her. Even with my heart replaced, that has not changed. I will go to her and explain the situation to her. I will tell her everything. In a month, after my wedding, I will return here with her, and you will remove this arm. Then our association will be over.”
“In a month, you will understand the true nature of the gift you have been given,” Aisa replied mildly. “A hero’s heart needs the strength of a hero’s arm. You will come to rely on it soon enough.”
“I sincerely doubt that, madam. Now, if you’d kindly furnish me with my accoutrements, I shall take my leave.”
“Very well,” she said, and rose. Again my eyes were drawn to the dress and the way it smoothed itself over the curves of her body. The abhorrent lust that had motivated me so recently, that had led me down this dark and terrible path, was roused again. I saw in my mind’s eye the thin, pale body of Jenny, the unvirtuous woman I had defiled for a handful of shillings, and instead of disgust I felt desire. A hero’s heart? I was no hero. I was the beast.
Aisa left the room and, as I waited, Callow approached me. “James,” he said softly, “you must be careful.”
“Pardon me?” I had little time for my old friend now. I was still angry with him and the thought of striking him occurred, and thence tearing at him with this brazen talon, rending his flesh from his bones, as mine had been. Thankfully, I still retained enough self-control to restrain myself from such a drastic action.
“Aisa is a proud woman, and like all her sex is mercurial and mysterious.” I saw real fear in his eyes as he spoke. How had he come to know her anyway? I realised I had never enquired. “You do not wish to anger her.”
“I do not intend to anger her, doctor. She understands, unlike you, that she has an obligation to repair the damage she has done.”
“If you believe I am the architect of this downfall, you are sadly mistaken, James.” His eyes appeared strangely haunted. There was something here I did not fully understand.
Aisa returned, and she carried my shirt, jacket and waistcoat, along with my other effects of which I had been relieved sometime during my week-long convalescence. Atop the small pile of possessions was a pair of black leather men’s gloves. I took them with a restrained smile. “Thank you.”
“I hope I will see you again, James, in better circumstances.”
“As do I, madam. In a month, I trust we can make the wrong that has been done to me right.”
“In either case, the fates will be satisfied,” she replied enigmatically.
I looked at Callow. “Doctor, will we share the cost of a cab back to our more familiar haunts?” For all my anger, he was still my late father’s trusted confidant.
He began to say something, but then glanced at Aisa. She smiled and laid a hand on his arm. “The doctor and I have some small piece of business we must discuss. Go on home, James. And talk with your Marjory. It is important that you know your own heart in these matters.”
Callow’s face had paled, but he gave a sharp nod. “As she says, James. Good day to you.”
“Good day, doctor,” I said, “madam.” They left the room, returning to the workshop and the mechanical door closed behind them so I was left alone. I began to dress myself, cringing at the awkward size and motion of my new appendage, struggling to pull on my shirt. It was not easy, but eventually I was attired to my satisfaction. I paused, wondering whether I should check that all was well with Callow, but realised that my one overwhelming desire was to affect my egress and leave this place as soon as I was able. As I walked towards the other door it opened before me with the familiar ticking, and I went out into the long hall just as the lamps began to turn on, as if by magic.
The curtains were drawn in the Pyms’ house. I felt nauseous again as I loitered across the road, watching. It was daytime, though the smog was thick, even here, and the city had looked dirty and foul during my journey here. Colours were still less vivid to me, and I felt empty inside, as much a simulacrum of humanity as Theseus. Appropriate, I reflected, since I had purloined so much of him for my own ends. It seemed unfair to the magnificent creation, somehow, but any sympathy I had for the automaton was swallowed by revulsion at how he had inadvertently invaded me. Eventually I plucked up the courage to cross the road, and I knocked on the door. I used my right hand, keeping my clockwork arm by my side where it hung lifelessly, oddly, too long for my frame, but hidden by glove and sleeve.
I was admitted, and shown immediately to the drawing room, where I found Marjory sitting on a couch, clutching an embroidered kerchief. She was dressed in mourning black, of course. I paused at the door as the maid excused herself. “Marjory…” I said.
“James!” She looked up with a start. For a second she stared at me, then she rose and flung herself towards me, enfolding me in an embrace. “Where have you been? No one has heard from you in days!”
“I was indisposed,” I managed to say.
“But you weren’t at home. I called on you. I came by day and night, but there was never a light at your window. Where were you?”
“Staying with an acquaintance.” It was a feeble, unsatisfactory lie, but I had thought of nothing better during my journey. “Marjory,” I began as I pulled away from her, “I have not been myself lately.”
Her eyes were red from weeping and her face drawn and pale. Her hair was in some disarray, and she looked unattractive to me then in the gloom of the darkened room. I felt nothing for her, but I told myself that was just a symptom of the strangeness I had been experiencing. “I know that, James,” she said, “what I don’t understand is why.”
“It is a long story, in a way,” I told her weakly. I had wanted to explain everything to her, but now it came to it I found myself unable to. How could I even begin? The tale was too outlandish, too gruesome, too unbelievable. She would think I was making sport of her, and her condition was delicate at present. “I…I am sorry about your father, Marjory.”
Her face crumpled and she sat down heavily on the couch again. “Oh, James. It is beyond awful. To think that my father, such a great and noble man, should die in such ignominy. That he should be found trampled into the cobbles in such a vile corner of the city. And we do not know why he was there, James. We do not have any explanation for anything that has occurred.” She dabbed at her eyes.
I moved hesitantly, coming to sit beside her. She turned slightly to me and I unthinkingly took her right hand in my left. The tell-tale ticking echoed around the room and she frowned.
“Marjory,” I said quickly, “there is nothing I can say that will make things better. I’m sure you and your mother…”
“She is insensible, James. She has not risen from her bed in a week. She lies in darkness, staring at nothing. I bring her food, but she doesn’t eat it. She will not even respond to me when I speak to her. The doctor says it is grief and we must wait it out. Can you imagine, James?”
“I cannot,” I admitted, “but I will try to make things right. When we are married…”
“No, James.” She looked at me very intently. “With all that has happened, I do not see how we can be married. Not yet. My father’s funeral is in two days. How can I marry so soon after that?”
Again, I felt nothing. I was as numb as her mother had apparently become. The news that the woman I had been engaged to for so many months now had no wish to be my wife registered no more than if someone had told me it would rain tomorrow rather than be fine. “Marjory…” I began.
She continued to speak. “It is as if the whole world has gone to madness, James. Three months ago I was happy. All was well. And somehow, everything has spun off its axis and now I am lost. You began to act strangely and I questioned everything I had once taken for granted.” She put her hand to my cheek in a grim echo of Aisa. “What happened to the sweet man I fell in love with? Where did he go?”
“He still lives,” I whispered.
She put a hand on my chest. “In here?”
She drew away and wiped her eyes. “And now all this. How can it be that such terrible things have overtaken us? What can be the cause of such woe?”
“I do not know, my darling.” But I did, of course. The fault was with me. I had begun this spiral into chaos, and now it had hurt this woman who, for all my ambivalence at that moment, I could not but treat with affection. I wet my lips and then opened my mouth, intending to confess all, but then the maid appeared at the door again, bobbing uncertainly.
“Miss Pym? There’s a visitor.”
“I am not receiving guests, Alison,” Marjory said, a little shortly, “please tell them to leave a card and…”
“It’s a policeman, ma’am.”
“I suppose so, ma’am.”
“Well show him in then.”
I had frozen. My mechanical hand began to clench, the first involuntary act it had committed. Marjory let out a cry and tried to pull herself free. I released her and began to apologise, but then the policeman entered the room as Alison ducked away. He was a tall man, broad, with a black beard but greying hair. He wore suit and overcoat and carried his bowler hat in his hands. “Miss Pym,” he said, and then looked straight at me. “And Mr Tilstock. How fortunate to run into you here. I am Inspector Dalton.” He spoke with a working class dialect, but refined by education rather than nature. I perceived that he was a tough man, one who had once been an ordinary peeler on the streets, but had worked his way up and now dealt daily with his betters by birth. I feared him. He seemed to look straight into me, stripping away skin and bone to reveal my hideous ticking heart beneath it all.
“Inspector,” Marjory said, “please forgive me for my lack of hospitality.”
“That is no problem at all, madam,” he said gently, “I’m quite used to being an unwelcome presence, if you take my meaning. I am here only in my official capacity, trying to get to the bottom of this tragedy.”
“I already said I don’t know why my father was in that dreadful part of town, inspector. I’ve told your colleagues all I know.”
“Indeed, miss, indeed. However, more evidence has come to light of late.” He gestured to a chair. “May I sit?”
“I perhaps should leave you alone,” I said, beginning to stand.
“Not at all, Mr Tilstock,” Dalton said as he seated himself across from us, “I’d very much like to speak with you as well.”
“Me?” I kept my tone incredulous, but I had no hope my subterfuge would withstand this man’s scrutiny.
“As you know, Miss Pym, your father was sadly run down by a cart in the street. Ordinarily we would not look into this particular case so thoroughly, but firstly your father was a gentleman of some standing, and secondly and relatedly, he had no cause to be where he was when the tragedy unfolded. We suspected foul play. Now, that suspicion has been confirmed by the only other witness to the accident – the driver of the cart.”
“The driver?” Marjory asked. “I thought he was killed too.”
“Not killed, miss, no. But he has been unconscious since the events of that night, so severe were his injuries. He is not expected to survive, but he has become sensible again and was able to furnish us with a statement.”
My nausea returned. “A statement?”
“Naturally it’s rather confused. He doesn’t remember much about what occurred. But he is quite certain there was another man at the scene, and that he and Mr Pym were quarrelling. It appears as if he may have been pushed into the path of the cart.”
“Pushed?” Marjory gasped. “So he was murdered?”
“I would not go quite that far, miss, but certainly there is something here we don’t yet understand.”
I cleared my throat. “Inspector,” I said, “do you not suppose the driver would seek to blame someone else for the accident to remove his own responsibility for it?”
“Perhaps,” Dalton said, “but we’re the police, Mr Tilstock. It’s our job to investigate these things.”
“Now, sadly we don’t have a detailed description of this mysterious second witness, except that he was quite average in height and build, with light brown hair. He was wearing just shirtsleeves, the driver thinks.”
“I see.” I fit that description, of course, for it was me he had seen. Was it enough to condemn me?
“Any number of men in London might answer to that description,” Dalton continued, “though only a few might have cause to exchange blows with Mr Pym.”
“I suppose so…”
“Inspector,” Marjory interjected, “do you know who might have done this?”
“We have an idea, miss.” He looked directly at me, and there was a smile in his eyes that didn’t touch his mouth. “There are still some questions we have to ask. There are a few establishments of a less than savoury nature in that part of town, most of which keep what you might call unusual hours. Anyone out and about in the streets so early in the morning would have been seen by someone in the area. My constables are seeking out any possible witnesses. Discreetly, of course, for my lads aren’t always welcome in such places as I’m sure you’ll understand.”
“I appreciate the lengths you and your men are going to, Inspector Dalton,” Marjory said. “Anything you can tell me to explain why my father was in such a horrible place and why he met his end so savagely would be a balm at this time.” She raised her kerchief delicately to her eyes.
“We’ll try to find this cove, whoever he is, miss.”
“I hope that you do,” I said.
Dalton, still looking at me, got up. “If you’ll both excuse me, there is rather a lot of work to do, as I’m sure you appreciate.”
“Thank you for keeping us abreast of developments in your investigation, inspector. I really do appreciate it,” Marjory told him.
He bowed slightly and stepped smartly out of the room. Alison, who had been hovering just out of sight, showed him down the hall towards the front door.
“I can scarcely believe this,” Marjory said.
“Me neither.” I stood. “I…must leave.”
“What? Whatever for?”
“Business. Did I not say I could only stay for a short time?”
“No, you didn’t. What can be more important than being here with me?”
“Many things,” I snapped, “I am not here to pander to your hysterics.”
I was distracted, my mind racing. My left fist opened and closed compulsively, each time accompanied by the same whirring.
“Whatever is that sound, James?”
“Nothing.” There was no time to loose. If I wished to make things right, if I wished to rebuild my life, I had to prevent word of my involvement in Pym’s death reaching this Inspector Dalton. There were at least five people who could place me in the area on that night, and not a one of them had reason to lend me aid. I hoped they had even less reason to cooperate with the police, but I could take no chances. I could feel the strength in my arm. As hateful as it was to think I might have cause to rely on that strength, just as Aisa predicted, I knew it would be necessary now. There was no time to lose. Ignoring Marjory’s protestations, I left her alone and headed for the door.